The Developer's Moral Imperative, Or Why It's OK For Anders To Be Gay
A while back, I was pouring over the forums for the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’m easy to pick out – I’m the one usually bitching about canonical representation of blaster bolt physics and petitioning for the inclusion of Kawakian Monkey-Lizards as a playable race. Anyway, one of the threads I stumbled upon had commented that same-sex relationships, so prevalent in the Dragon Age series, seemed to be absent from The Old Republic.
Seeing as how cogent socio-political discussion gets on about as well on internet forums as Jack Thompson at a Doom LAN party, I promptly backed out of the thread. Yet somehow I had inadvertently picked up a takeaway from the discussion before it devolved into chaos. Should game developers even be attempting to address larger social issues with their games? Do they have a right to take on that task? Do they have a duty to do so?
I guess, to clarify, I should state that I’m not interested in how games currently portray “morality.” I don’t care about the specific merits of the Paragon/Renegade system; whether or not I think taking a Karma hit in Fallout is an appropriately severe punishment for nuking a city isn’t relevant to the discussion. No, I’m interested in trying to take it a step further – do games have any business even talking to me about morality at all.
After all, games are just that – games, right? Isn’t their primary purpose to entertain? Don’t people play games specifically not to think about these things, or be preached to about moral issues? If I’m paying hard-earned money for a game, I run the very real risk of being well and truly pissed if some mysterious Game Developer tries to shove his highfalutin’ “message” down my throat while I’m pwning n00bs.
The tricky thing about games is that they are a very unique and distinct medium, vastly different from books or even film, and this difference hinges on interaction. A good film will make you empathize with the main character, whereas a good game will allow you to become the main character. If I watch a movie with a gay supporting character and this makes me uncomfortable, I will be likely to simply follow the path of least resistance and just stop watching. Similarly, if I boot up Dragon Age 2 and inadvertently stumble across Anders’ homosexual leanings (and let’s face it, it’s not hard to do. The man’s an ex-Warden, he’s got a lot of pent up frustration), I may be similarly inclined to turn the game off.
The difference is that, though I empathize with movie characters, I am still separated from them, ever the observer. Anders, however, is not merely a character, he is a companion. I’ve interacted with him. We’ve saved each other’s asses. And at the end of the day, in spite of whatever my feelings on sexual orientation may be, I have come to value Anders as a person and as a member of my party. Ours’ is a bond forged in battle and friendship, and that is not the type of bond that discriminates.
By creating an Anders that is gay (or, at the very least has the capacity to be gay), BioWare is not trying to force a lifestyle down anyone’s throat. Rather, their design choice could be interpreted as an attempt to normalize a marginalized social group by naturalizing it in the game world. In this way, I can familiarize myself with Anders on a human level through my direct interaction – I am more inclined to do this both because I face no risk of any actual “harm”, and also because I have a strong desire to complete the game.
Part of the magic of games is that they can give us experience with difficult social problems through this direct interaction. They are thought experiments, actualized. In games we have a unique opportunity to explore the deepest limits of our psyche to see what we’re really constructed of. The beautiful thing is, because it’s a video game, there’s no external harm done to anyone. And while the consequences may be fictional, if the game is good that doesn’t mean that they aren’t real, or at least impactful. As a net result, we come out of our games having learned something about ourselves; we are literally more complete people. To squander the unique opportunity that games as a medium of expression offers us in favor of mindless hack’n’slashes seems almost criminal.
Of course, video games’ imperative to explore complex issues is as functional as it is moral (I’m not that pretentious, after all). At their heart, games basically consist of the player pushing buttons in specific sequences at specific times. Developers have been refining this button-pushing exercise for so long that it’s reached an almost Spartan level of efficiency. Games like Call of Duty and Dragon Age have turned button pushing and economy of controls into an art form. The weird thing is, game design has become so efficient that things like button layout, user interface, and hell even plot most of the time seem so universal as to be indistinguishable from each other. The unhappy consequence of reaching the pinnacle is that there is nowhere else to go, and so games nowadays tend to blur together. Oftentimes it feels like going from Call of Duty to Halo isn’t even switching games, it’s just a different skin for the overall game, “First Person Shooter.” Regardless of technical efficiency, ubiquity in video games is certainly something to be avoided. Otherwise, when each game feels exactly the same, it’s easy to forget what game you’re even playing, let alone care about any of it. Instead, it simply becomes a contest to see how quickly and how many times you can push a specific series of buttons.
So what do we do, then? Recognize that, from a technical standpoint games have likely come as far as they can (at least for a while) and just stop making new games? Do we adopt a crazy sort of Sunnyvale Syndrome where we recognize that the games are all carbon copies of each other, but we just go on and play them anyways? No, the solution is that we must instead refine not how we play games, but why. Game design has gotten so advanced that it’s now possible to render entire gameworlds with remarkably lifelike details, and voice acting in games has, in recent years become an art all its own. Why not use these resources to create intricate stories for me to immerse myself in, or craft complex dilemmas that affect me through my character? While it may be difficult to devise a control scheme or brand new interface that will shake the foundations of gaming, what will wow gamers these days is a game that, more than a mindless button-mash fest actually press our boundaries. Start using the games to play the gamers as much as the other way around. With gaming’s inherent interactivity, the potential is there to create incredibly complex and involving social, moral, political, or any other type of real-life issue that must be thought through as much as fought through. For the sake of developing video games as a burgeoning art form, the next step has to be taken, and that step is to involve gamers’ minds as much as their fingers.
This all, of course, rests on the assumption that games are some new form of art, or at least a unique and distinct medium unlike anything we’ve seen before. While you may or may not agree, what you can’t deny is that more and more developers are taking these risks. Games like Catherine, L.A. Noire, and even Bastion have made huge names for themselves by being unafraid not only to engage with deep, often troubling themes, but to center around them. The inevitable consequence of this, of course, is that some people will be put out. However, instead of getting defensive, I actually view this as a good thing, since it means that games are succeeding at striking a nerve with people and getting to them on a deeper level. Say no to simply being entertained by games, and instead demand to be enriched by them.